European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 6) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:08 pm on 5th September 2019.

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Photo of Lord Wilson of Dinton Lord Wilson of Dinton Crossbench 4:08 pm, 5th September 2019

My Lords, I have listened to, I think, nine hours of debate, yesterday and today. I was not going to speak but I somehow think I have to. There are so many things I could say, but I want to make just three points. First, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and those in the other place who have put together this Bill. It may be a very important example of cross-party working. It is 50 years since I sat in the official Box in this House, and I have been observing its proceedings regularly for that period. I have a sense at the moment that we are in a watershed. Things will never be the same after these Brexit years, not least because Brexit will be with us for 10, 15 or 20 years. It will divide the country, whether we leave or stay, and we have a huge problem dealing with it. Part of that problem is that our political institutions are not keeping up with the world, which is changing around us. At some point we will have to look at ourselves quite radically to ensure that we can keep up with what is expected of us. We are not helping ourselves in the way we are carrying on business at the moment.

Within that, the position of political parties is becoming a problem. I should never talk about political parties; I lack the gene that gives people passion for them. I have for a long time been very privileged to observe politicians closely and I have never, ever understood them. I just accept that I am not “one of you”. Equally, I know the importance of parties. At the moment, both in government and in political and party affairs, there are too many moving parts and too many fixed structures in my life are no longer stable or reliable. That is an unnerving feeling. If I am honest, the dismissal of 21 members of the Conservative Party appals me—I am not a politician but it appals me. It is over 50 years since I observed a number of leading Conservative politicians—the now noble Lords, Lord Howard, Lord Gummer and Lord Lamont, and Mr Kenneth Clarke—in the Cambridge Union. I remember Kenneth Clarke as a blonde, tall, slim chap with a northern accent, and I am utterly dismayed to find his contribution treated so cavalierly.

Listening to the debate and watching what is going on, I feel that I am living in a world that is going mad. Too many things are happening. I cannot be alone in feeling that—it is not just my age; it is true. We need sanity. There is sanity in this House and within the parties, and we will be rescued only if sane people can overcome their differences, act in the national interest and work together. This Bill is an example of that. Maybe it will lead to a referendum because I cannot see how a general election will get us out of our difficulty; what will happen if we again have a hung Parliament? So perhaps there will be a referendum. That is my first point: be true to your parties but also look at the national interest before your party interest when needed.

My second concern is that there is a need for a view about the future of this country in the world. The world around us is changing fast. We are in the middle of a technological revolution that I think is greater than the Industrial Revolution. Just 15 years ago we did not have smart phones and apps but now they are an indispensable part of everybody’s lives. Social media is changing the whole political context not just in this country but in other countries. I have recently chaired conferences and have learned that I can chair meetings without understanding a word of what is said. I chaired a meeting in Cambridge on quantum computing and another on blockchain, which is even worse. I also chaired one on DNA—on CRISPR-Cas 9 for those who are interested.

The things that are being brought to fruition in the world of research at the moment will alter the world more in the next 10, 15 or 20 years than has been the case in the last 10 or 15 years, and that has been fast enough. We in the political world and in political institutions have to keep up with and understand those things. Brexit is important but it is not the only change that is happening, and we need to have a view of the world, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, said earlier. We need to have a view of our place in the world and of how we will cope with it and be equipped to deal with it. It is not my field but the tectonic plates of world politics are changing. America and China will dominate the scene. Europe will not be the centre of the world, as we have thought of ourselves. The need to have a position in which we can choose between America and China, when each of them puts pressure on us, will be important. We will lack company if we isolate ourselves from the rest of Europe by behaving badly towards it and having no deal. The context of all this will be fundamental for the future of this country in a way that goes deeper than just politics and economics; it will be cultural too.

I am hugely bothered by the way in which the word “trust” has been used. I am used to people trusting government institutions. Part of my career has involved trying to uphold trust and ensure that people know where the boundaries are in a pragmatic way. One of those boundaries, as my noble friend and successor said just now, concerns special advisers. A lot of my time was taken up with special advisers and I have a detailed question for the Minister when he replies. There were, and I think there still are, rules governing special advisers, one of which was that they are temporary civil servants and do not have Executive powers. Can the Minister assure us that present special advisers are not exercising Executive powers? For instance, sacking another special adviser is the exercise of an Executive power. Special advisers do not have such powers. If someone purports to sack someone and they do not have the power to do it, is that sacking valid? I assume that this has been looked into and that the Government know what is going on, but I raise it because it is a small example of a more general principle. We need to ensure that the codes of conduct—not just gentlemen or good chaps behaving well but the basic rules of government—are being observed. I feel that, at the moment, when people feel able to be careless and cavalier with conventions, we ought to ask whether basic principles are being observed and challenging when they are not.

I think that is enough for now. I could go on at length about the principles at stake today, but so much has been said that I agree with and I will not repeat it.